Has Network Television Defanged Colbert’s Political Bite?

Yep. But here’s why that might not be a bad thing.

The Late Show with Stephen Colbert
Photo Illustration by Slate. Photo by ©2015 CBS Broadcasting Inc.

To a certain type of liberal, April 10, 2014 was a day of mourning. At around noon, news broke that Stephen Colbert would be the new host of The Late Show on CBS. As a result, the character of the same name—the bombastic, proudly ignorant, larger-than-life fake conservative pundit who hosted The Colbert Report on Comedy Central—would be disappearing. In a piece for the New Yorker titled “The Late Stephen Colbert,” Hendrik Hertzberg summed up a not uncommon sentiment among progressives: “One’s first reaction to the ascension—or descent—of Stephen Colbert … is grief: uncomprehending, possibly inconsolable grief.” At the news that the Colbert character would be ending, Hertzberg continued: “What? What? How can that be? What does that even mean?”

Losing Colbert felt to many liberals like the loss of political oxygen. More than any other recent popular satirist, he was a voice that absorbed this country’s worst mass delusions—whether they were about a nefarious “gay agenda,” a global warming “conspiracy,” the premise that half of the country was made up of mindless moochers addicted to the government teat, or any other false threat in the culture wars—and exposed these ideas and those who propagated them as frauds. While other programs did something similar—particularly The Daily Show, where Colbert’s character got his start—the Colbert persona was a form that transcended parody to offer a sort of magic mirror into a world that seemed to be one giant web of lies. “Unlike, say, what The Daily Show does … my show is a false construction of the news as opposed to a pure deconstruction of the news,” Colbert told former Slate editor David Plotz in an interview last year.

Now Colbert’s “Colbert”-less Late Show has been on the air for just about three months, and, surprisingly, it is as politically themed as his old show. He has devoted regular segments to poking fun at the day’s biggest political news (with a specific focus on GOP primary polling leader Donald Trump), invited public intellectuals and government figures to discuss serious issues ranging from inequality to the Iranian nuclear deal, and interrogated a stream of politicians, including a handful of the top contenders for president. So were the worst fears of Colbert Nation about the loss of a central figure in the ongoing progressive fight for America’s soul actually overblown?

Not exactly. Colbert’s political commentary—while still incredibly smart, funny, and among the best infotainment in the country—is now squarely in the “deconstructionist” category, which you can get in many other places. And unsurprisingly, it’s tamer than it’s ever been. The new Colbert has all the humanity and passion and humor of the old Colbert, but his politics have lost a lot of his old bite, surely in part to meet the new challenge of having to cater to a wider and more diverse audience (a challenge every late-night host making a similar transition has faced). These compromises make for a far less pointed—and often less essential-feeling—Colbert.

In an interview with the New York Times’ Dave Itzkoff published just prior to the new show’s launch, Colbert himself conceded that he would be taking a much lighter approach. His comedic sensibility had remained, but he would present it “in a package that is not in mortal combat over the future of our culture,” Colbert said. “I’m here to play.”

You can see the mirth, but also the softer edges, in many of his new political segments. For instance, in one of the most common (and funny) recurring bits on the new show: “The Hungry for Power Games,” a Hunger Games parody in which Colbert dons the wig, dress, affectation, and eyebrows of Caesar Flickerman to mock presidential “tributes” whenever one drops out of the race. He uses this bit to pick apart the shallow and farcical elements of the electoral process—a burial for Rick Perry’s “smart guy glasses” was particularly well-done—and occasionally touch on the insanity of Donald Trump topping the GOP field. But his routine is much heavier on mugging for the camera and gags about the terrible poll numbers of each of the fallen candidates than it is on substance. (“[Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal dropping out] must be tough news for Jindal’s base, or whatever you call polling at 0.3 percent.”)

This is all good fun, but it reflects the show’s general focus on softly critiquing the superficial aspects of our political system rather than really undermining it. “Language has always been important in politics, but language is incredibly important to the present political struggle,” Colbert told New York magazine in 2006, as he had just made his transition from Daily Show correspondent to Colbert Report host. “Because if you can establish an atmosphere in which information doesn’t mean anything, then there is no objective reality. The first show we did, a year ago, was our thesis statement: What you wish to be true is all that matters, regardless of the facts.” That famous opening monologue on “Truthiness” was a perfect absurdist recreation of the disdain among some members of the conservative elite for what one Bush aide (later identified as Karl Rove) described to the New York Times as “what we call the reality-based community.”

The new Colbert approaches the “present political struggle” much differently, making near-daily jokes about the ridiculous size of the presidential field and the physical appearances and fabricated personas of the candidates. But he’s less focused on the toxic ideology and ignorance that undergird the spectacle. When he got a chance to interview Trump, multiple outlets criticized Colbert for going soft. And it’s true that he didn’t directly call out Trump for his blatant bigotry and demagoguery, choosing instead to needle him on small points like the practicality and ugliness of his proposed Mexican border wall, and lobbing him softballs about what it’s like to be getting so much attention.

Again, it was fun. And Colbert was much harder in an interview with Texas Sen. Ted Cruz, presumably (and maybe justifiably) because Cruz is a more serious candidate. But Trump is running one of the ugliest political campaigns in modern American history and to not even attempt to puncture that feels like a missed opportunity that the character Stephen Colbert would never have let slip away. Similarly, when he had a chance to truly challenge Democratic front-runner Hillary Clinton in a one-on-one interview, he took a pass. The same thing happened in his opening show’s interview with Jeb Bush.

Compare Colbert’s kid-gloves treatment of three figures who have all been front-runners for their party’s nomination at various points to what may be his defining moment as a political commentator: the 2006 White House Correspondents’ Association Dinner. Standing a few feet away from the sitting president and in front of a room full of Washington, D.C. power players, Colbert dismantled the entire premise of George W. Bush’s administration and flatly proclaimed what its deceits had meant to the world.

But as much as Colbert’s political bite has been defanged by network TV—and as startling as his personality makeover has sometimes been to watch—it’s not nothing that he still manages to sling far sharper political barbs than anyone else on late-night TV. The old, cutting and substantive Colbert still rears his head from time to time; he’s just disguised as someone more jovial and gentle. Take, for instance, the way he battered Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker for citing “God’s plan” in both his decision to drop out of the race and in his decision to run: “In other words, God said, ‘I have chosen you to … Psyche!’ ”

Colbert is clearly figuring out how to package his political views in a way that expands their reach and makes them palatable to those who might not naturally appreciate them. The Colbert Report finale attracted 2.5 million viewers; The Late Show With Stephen Colbert’s debut attracted 6.6 million. Even as the show’s viewership has seen an inevitable decline since then, the audience he is reaching on CBS is still dramatically different than the demographic that tuned into his Comedy Central show. He already perfected the exercise of feeding eager young liberals exactly the kind of political critiques they already believed. So there’s value in a show that figures out how to smuggle his political views into mainstream American living rooms like a Colbert-shaped Trojan horse.